Rescued chimp Vanilla, awed at first sight of blue sky, thrives in her new home

June 30, 2023

Things are literally ‘looking up’ for Vanilla. The rescued chimpanzee, who was spellbound after seeing the sky for the first time in three decades last year, is flourishing at her new home in Florida, reports the New York Post.

“She was just welcomed so warmly,” said Dan Mathews, director of Events and Special Projects at the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she now resides, per the Daily Mail. “And after all she’s been through, with never being able to walk more than ten paces in any direction, to have this kind of freedom, she’s just, she’s thriving right now.”

Vanilla is one of 226 chimpanzees living on the idyllic island, dubbed “Florida’s wildest retirement community”—which houses primate refugees from laboratories, the entertainment industry, the exotic pet trade, and roadside zoos.

Many have previously endured solitary confinement and never interacted with other chimps before—as was the case with Vanilla. She is a 29-year-old survivor of the notorious, now-closed Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates in Tuxedo, New York.

According to Mathews, she had “never felt grass beneath her feet before.”

Thankfully, Vanilla is now thriving in her new world, often seen frolicking around in the fields with other chimps—and periodically glancing up in disbelief. In the heartwarming video that shocked the Internet earlier in June, the chimp could be seen stepping outside and looking up at the blue sky in astonishment, marking the first time she’d seen it after spending nearly 30 years in a cage. She was greeted with open arms by Dwight, an “alpha male who’s in charge of the chimps,” per Matthews.

“In the video, you see her going into his arms for a hug,” the special projects coordinator explained, describing the emotional moment. “It is the first time she was outdoors with more than ten feet of fence around her on all sides from top to bottom.”

It’s been a long and arduous road for Vanilla, who was born into captivity at the LEMSIP testing facility in 1995. She was immediately separated from her mother because researchers find it difficult to experiment on baby chimps with a protective mama present.

“Researchers drew blood and did biopsies,” he explained. “They infected the chimpanzees with various diseases, but I don’t know if Vanilla was infected.”

The facility was shuttered in 1997, after which the lab’s more than100 chimps were relocated.

Vanilla and her sister Shake were sent to the Wildlife Waystation, a nonprofit refuge north of Los Angeles, which was essentially “a dumping ground for many animals who were being discarded,” Mathews explained.

While the chimps weren’t subject to cruel testing like at LEMSIP, the digs were still less than ideal—especially due to the frequent wildfires, which burned the place down in 2017. Vanilla lived at the Wildlife Waystation until it went out of business in 2019, whereupon the embattled animal had to be relocated yet again.

This time, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife worked with the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance to finally find Vanilla and Shake a happy home.

In 2022, they were placed at Save the Chimps, located on a once-contaminated orange grove that was converted to a veritable chimp paradise, with 12 artificial islands across 150 acres. Best of all, each isle is surrounded by water so the animals don’t have to be fenced in.

Despite the accommodations, it took a minute for Vanilla to adjust after a lifetime in claustrophobic and cruel conditions.

“Vanilla was so shy when she first arrived at Save the Chimps,” said Mathews. “She was in one of our large outdoor enclosures to be in quarantine and to be assessed. She rarely came down from her platform up on top of the enclosure.”

He added, “She didn’t really know what to do in the grass and on the ground.”

But now, she’s come a long way from her cramped cage. Save the Chimps primatologist Andrew Halloran says that now Vanilla gets along great with the other 18 apes on her island and has a special bond with alpha male Dwight, from “whom she steals food.

“When she’s not exploring the island with her friends, she can usually be found perched atop a three-story climbing platform surveying her new world.”

Research contact: @nypost